The real questions in Corby will be the effect of Ukip on the Tory vote, the Lib Dems’ deposit and the size of the Labour majority
Visiting Corby this week, Ed Miliband was keen to play down expectations that Labour is a shoo-in for the byelection caused by Louise Mensch’s resignation, the Guardian reported. Well, Miliband can play those expectations down as much as he likes. The reality is that anything other than a large Labour win in the Corby byelection would be both a surprise and, for Labour, a disaster. That’s not just an opinion. It is also a fact.
Mensch’s former seat in east Northamptonshire is a classic marginal constituency, which has voted for the winning party in every general election since it was created as a separate seat in 1983. From 1983 until 1997, it was held by the Conservative William Powell. From 1997 until 2010, it was the turn of Labour’s Phil Hope. But when Labour was turned out of government, Hope went too. Mensch took the seat by a tight 1,951 votes two years ago.
It would require a swing of just 1.8% to Labour to reclaim the seat, compared with 2010. Right now, however, the national opinion polls are showing a swing to Labour from the Tories of 8.5%. Apply that to Corby, and Labour should be looking for a byelection lead over the Tories of 13.4%. Depending on turnout, that should mean a majority of around 7,000 votes, based on 2010 figures.
But Labour can in reality expect to do even better that this. Corby is not a key seat for the Liberal Democrats in a general election. Here, though, they will be defending a general election share of 14.5% of the vote. Judging by the six British byelections since 2010, the Lib Dems can expect their share to fall sharply. Depending on turnout, that could push Labour’s majority up towards 10,000, a margin which it achieved in Corby in the 1997 landslide.
This byelection is the first in this parliament in which either of the coalition parties have had to defend a seat. Given the propensity of byelections to act as rallying points for protest voting against the government of the day, Corby is therefore very much Labour’s to lose. Why therefore is Miliband trying to play down expectations? Partly, of course, because that’s smart politics, helping to guard against complacency, ensuring that every voter believes their vote matters when the byelection is called.
But there is also the Galloway factor. Last time Labour fought a byelection, it was stunned by the Respect candidate’s triumph in Bradford West, where he trounced Labour with a record-setting 36.5% swing. Yet Corby is not Bradford West. Corby is a typical seat in ways Bradford West has not been for years. And Galloway is a unique figure. Yes, Labour needs to avoid complacency, but there is no way that a damn-the-lot-of-them candidate will overturn the main parties. The big unknown in Corby will be Ukip, not Respect.
As polling day nears, you will be given lots to read about local factors, the importance of the candidates and the campaigns and all the usual stuff. Most of it can be safely ignored. Like all high profile byelections, this one will be a national contest in a single constituency. The real questions in Corby will be the effect of Ukip on the Tory vote, whether the Lib Dems save their deposit, and the size of the Labour majority.
A generation ago, Corby used to be famous for one thing – the Corby candle. The candle was a tall, thin chimney which burned off the gases produced in the town’s steel plant. At night it could be seen for miles around. It was said that if the Corby candle ever went out, the town would die. Well, the steel works eventually closed in 1980 and 10,000 local people lost their jobs. But Corby didn’t die. And if Corby does what the signs suggest it will when the byelection comes, it could light a political candle that could guide Labour back into government.